Oklahoma law makes firing bad teachers costly and drawn out

Superintendents, senators, lawyers and even union leaders are calling for a change in Oklahoma law that they say makes it near impossible to fire a teacher absent a criminal conviction.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND mrolland@opubco.com Modified: November 26, 2010 at 7:26 am •  Published: November 26, 2010
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Snow said the teacher did not belong in a classroom with kids. When he arrived at the district, he began a second termination procedure, and this time prevailed.

“You'd think reasonable people ought to be able to come up with responsible procedures, but I don't think we've been there in my 32 years,” Snow said.

Over the course of 20 years that the Due Process Act has been in place for educators, a number of disturbing cases have put questionable teachers back into classrooms, said Julie Miller, attorney with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

One case in Bryan County reinstated a teacher who had threatened to beat up a principal, and another case from Watts reinstated a teacher who had slapped a special education student.

Miller said those two cases and the Quigley case are examples where teachers won on appeal because of legal technicalities that had nothing to do with what was in the best interests of students.

“We're very unique with our teacher due process and administrative due process in that we have specific requirements for probation, warnings and statutory grounds. Not a lot of states go into that detail,” Miller said. “Honestly, I'm an attorney, but the way we've made it so complicated is we've just created a business opportunity.”

There are eight reasons a career teacher may be fired: willful neglect of duty, repeated negligence in performance of duty, mental or physical abuse to a child, incompetency, instructional ineffectiveness, unsatisfactory teaching performance, commission of an act of moral turpitude or abandonment of contract.

None of those reasons for dismissal are defined, although state law does make it clear that a teacher can be fired for “criminal sexual activity” which is defined as the act of sodomy.

Abandonment of contract is defined as not showing up for work only “when the teacher has accepted other employment.”

“We can't use abandonment of contract to fire a teacher who doesn't show up for work. We have to use willful neglect of duty, put them on a plan for improvement, wait and then fire them,” Miller said.

The strongest proponents of the Teacher Due Process Act are teachers and the unions that represent them, but even on that front, there has been some concession.

Oklahoma's largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, did not return calls requesting interviews for this story.

Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, said there is room for improvement.

“You can't get rid of due process,” Allen said. “We agree it takes too long, and it costs too much money. Having said that, we're uncomfortable — since boards are political bodies — that that's the final word.”

Allen proposes a measure where there is a more complete hearing before the board with a neutral hearing officer, and then any decision is subject to a judicial review that simply looks at procedural questions to ensure the law was followed.

“People do make false accusations, and boards tend to want to support their superintendent sometimes regardless of the facts,” Allen said.

Also advocating for serious change is Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, who introduced legislation last year that would have done away with trial de novo and said he would do so again this year.

“We don't want to take away anyone's due process,” Ford said.

“What we're doing is making the process take place at the board level with a more complete hearing. The school board's decision would be final, although all employees, if civil rights have been violated or other specific violations have occurred, they always have recourse.”